STX Films                    140 minutes          R                            Reviewed December 22, 2017

Aaron Sorkin isn’t generally known for making women the lead characters in his TV projects and movies. But he gladly went for this one. He not only wrote the screenplay but, hard to believe, his first time directing. Sorkin was intrigued by Molly Bloom’s book detailing the events leading up to her arrest when the government confiscated millions and more in property. This film goes further.

The tabloids called her the “Poker Princess” for running high stakes poker games in LA and New York and putting some of the highest profile names from Movies, professional sports, Wall Street, and eventually the Russian mob at her tables gambling millions. Sorkin doesn’t name the high profile players who are named in the book, which we think may have been to make her look like more of a hero.

Sorkin was impressed with Bloom’s writing detailing the events, but also with her morality. In the film, she is put under pressure to divulge names, but stubbornly refuses to say who was at her tables. She is definitely an A personality. The former mogul skier broke her back as a teen, came back to try again and tragically wiped out in Olympic trials. Her father, Larry, played by Kevin Costner, is a Professor of Psychology who was always pushing her to the limit. Molly is smart, assertive and not intimidated by powerful men like her Daddy.

Molly was going to go to law school, but ended up waitressing and then working for a real estate guy who ran underground poker games on the side. When she started to make too much money, he wanted too much of a cut of her salary, so she decided to fill tables on her own. Molly is driven and fearless. One of her favorite quotes you’ll hear in the movie is from Winston Churchill. It’s “The ability to go from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.” And she lived it.

Sorkin’s first pick to play Bloom was Jessica Chastain. He says actresses can play smart and tough, but some just have it naturally and she does. Chastain handles a lot of narration explaining her life and what she’s up to throughout the film. It comes at you rapid fire while the camera follows the hands as they are happening. Pay attention to find out how the game works and how Bloom could make so much money doing it. She ran the games for 10 years until she was busted in the middle of the night by FBI agents looking for names of Russian mobsters who sat at her tables. But she would not give them any. The real Molly says she didn’t know about the crimes connected to the men in her games. It didn’t seem courageous “to step on other people to save myself.”  

Idris Elba loses his British accent and does a convincing New York one as her criminal defense lawyer, Charlie Jaffey. We enjoyed watching how Molly slowly won him over despite his not wanting to represent her. Their quick back and forth patter in their scenes is the kind of dialogue where Sorkin is at his best. Elba says you have to be on your game with Sorkin. He also had to be on his game with Chastain and their chemistry works. They shot all of their scenes in 10 days. Elba, too was impressed with Bloom’s story. She was about to go to jail and lose everything, but she wouldn’t give the government any names and Charlie admired her for that.

Michael Cera plays an A-list movie star. He’s one of her first customers, but nothing physical with Molly or her assistants. It’s strictly poker and lots of money on the table. Millions. Her stakes. Her rules. And you get to see the plays first hand, with overhead camera work as if you’re at the table shot by Cinematographer, Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Girl on a Train, Fences) . And you get to see the expressions on the faces of the players, win or lose.

Chris O’Dowd (Loving Vincent, Get Shorty TV series) plays Douglas Downey, is a player who admits loving Molly. But she no time for romance. And he owes her big time. He’s a gambling addict with no talent for the game. He plays a loser who just can’t stay away from her or the tables.  

The drama comes to a head when she gets roughed up by the Russians looking for money. But then it continues when she’s arrested and it plays out with Charlie in the courtroom. She lost the ability to run games, all her money and possessions, but she still has her self respect. She’s not a snitch. But the outcome is mind-boggling.

During this time, she decides to go skating and her Dad shows up for what becomes a therapy session. It seemed unlikely that he’d just show up in New York and find her in Central Park skating, which she admits in the film she hasn’t done in years. But their talk is an emotional highpoint where she finally opens up. Dad gets her and gets to her. (Molly’s real Dad loved the film.)

Chastain, Elba and Costner’s performance under the direction of Sorkin make the more than 2 hours go by at a good clip. It’s a fascinating story of a world you don’t often get to explore and it’s based on the true story. Interestingly enough movies and poker are similar. There are big stakes, lots of talk and bluffing. But we’re all in on Molly’s Game.

Click poster for trailer